Along a long straight stretch of the trail I noticed a squirrel run across the trail in the distance. Of course a squirrel crossing the trail is not anything particularly remarkable in these neck of the woods, so I did not pay much attention to it. I kept on walking. A few minutes later, the squirrel crossed the trail in the opposite direction (I assumed it was the same squirrel). I kept on walking getting closer to the spot where it had crossed,… when it ran across the trail again. I was almost upon it when it,… crossed again. Once I arrived at the location along the trail where the squirrel had been crossing it the reason for its behavior became abundantly clear. I a bush, right of the trail there was a single bird feeder that had had its roof knocked off, leaving it wide open for anyone to help themselves to the sunflower seeds. As I was watching the odd chickadee and nuthatch swoop in for a seed the squirrel came back. It quickly climbed the bush and without hesitating dove right into the feeder to grab a mouthful of sunflowers. Like a smooth and stealthy burglar it was gone it a flash, crossing the trail and disappearing into the forest, presumably to its secret lair to stay its loot. Two minutes later it came back, scampering through the forest, crossing the trail, climbing up to the bird feeder and back in it went.Its industriousness was quite impressive. It had clearly found the mother lode of the day and was hellbent on hoarding as much as possible before any competitor would discover the gold mine.
On our walk along the Whitemud Creek we came across a Red Squirrel that seemed to be just resting on a tree branch. Our presence did not bother it. Even when I slowly walked up to only about 5 feet away it did not budge. It did not seem to be afraid or worried, it just sort of was in a restful position and was eyeing us with equanimity. Squirrels along the trail are used to people so many of them are completely desensitize to human presence.
Clearly this Red Squirrel was not being bothered by the snow blizzard the least bit. It had found a spot on top of the back rest of a park bench overlooking the Whitemud Creek. It seemed to be contemplating profound things as it was gazing out over the frozen creek as the snow fell and blew around it. Even when it ended up having snow on its face it did not seem to mind. I assume it might take a squirrel to understand a squirrel.
Along to top of the wooden railing running along boardwalk spanning a low-lying wet area adjacent to the Whitemud Creek there were hundreds of tiny tracks in the snow. The tracks ran along the full length of the railing, around 100 meters or so. There could only be one small animal audacious enough to cross such a large exposed area in prime owl habitat – a Red Squirrel. These conspicuous animals typically make a great amount of noise as they defend their territories with loud chattering calls. There are a number of predators present in the ravine that would love to have a Red Squirrel for snack, including Great Horned Howls, Bald Eagles, Merlins, Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, not to mention Coyotes. I always wonder how many clueless squirrels end up in the talons or jaws of a predator while they are strutting around in the open seemingly oblivious to the dangers. My suspicion is that the tables are turned once night falls.
The view of the Great Horned owl from the boardwalk was perfect. After a while of admiring the Great Horned Owl basking in the sun I noticed a Red Squirrel sitting the snow covered railing. Considering the apex predator perching in the tree right across the creek it seemed like an ill-advised choice for a piece of fresh warm meat…, I mean squirrel to strut around right below the owl. I find it unlikely that the squirrel would be unaware of the owl. It is also possible that the squirrel is well aware of the owls diurnal habit of snoozing and that the tables turns after dark.
The Red Squirrels are everywhere. These fellas do not hibernate during the winter, but rather stay active throughout the season. They spend the fall collecting and storing food for future consumption in large. Using tree cavities, underbrush piles, or dens as their own pantries, red squirrels can ensure that the food they’ve gathered for the winter will be kept safely and out of the way of trespassers. Because their food stashes are critical for their survival they tend to be very territorial towards intruders. Confrontation between two red squirrels often entails a lot of tail flicking, chattering, and foot stomping. Even when I walk through the forest and come across a Red Squirrel it often shows its displeasure at my presence with loud chattering, aha sing its ground even when I am very close to it.
The Red Squirrels are rarely far away from the trail in the Whitemud Ravine. Sunflower seeds litter the logs and stumps along the trail, much to the delight of the squirrels, chickadees and nuthatches. Clearly these animals do not consider humans threatening, on the contrary, they associate humans with food. I am not sure if this is good or bad. While feeding wildlife is typically discourage this often refers to large animals that are potentially dangerous like bears and elk in the mountain parks and geese and coyotes in city parks. What could the possible harm be in feeding squirrels and birds sunflower seeds? Edmonton has a bylaw specifically prohibiting feeding wildlife and people have been known to be ticketed in the Whitemud Ravine for feeding the wildlife (presumable for providing sunflower seeds).
It never ceases to amaze me how hardy and resilient the animals in the forest are and how meek and helpless we humans are. Take this unassuming red squirrel as an example. I came across this little fella on a bitterly cold morning sitting in a tree munching on a snack seemingly not being bothered by the cold at all. I on the other hand, I was bundled up in more layers that I care to count, little hotties in boots and, toque and gloves…, yet, I had to keep moving to stay warm. It is remarkable that an animal so vulnerable and helpless to the elements has managed to become the globally dominant organism. The reason for the “success” of humans is obviously the brain. What we lack for in hardiness, teeth, claws and physical prowess we make up for with our brain. Nevertheless, this humble squirrel (and others like it) deserve our respect and admiration.
One of the most common sounds in the forest along the Whitemud Ravine is the distinct chattering noise made by the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Red Squirrels are solitary and territorial rodents that use their vocalization to announce their presence and defend their territory. In the fall they collect spruce and pine cones and hoard them underground in a central storage depot called a mídden. The midden is the main source of food during the winter and allows the squirrel to remain active throughout the winter. Because of the importance of these food caches they readily defend their territory from other squirrels that dare venture into it. Their address in the forest is permanent as individual squirrels stay in their territory for their entire lives. We came across this Red Squirrel that was perched on a branch along the trail making a cacophony of chattering sounds. As we walked past it it just ignored us and continued its noise making. Clearly this was the head of this territory and no squirrel or human should not even dare to think otherwise.
As we are trying to figure how to use our new camera for wildlife photography one of the main challenges always seems to be to try to get close enough to your subject. Well, that is not a problem with the local American Red Squirrel population. This picture was taken with our Nikon P900 at a focal length of 116 mm (650 mm at 35 mm equivalent) from only a few meters away. The little guy (or gal) was preoccupied gobbling down as many sunflower seed as possible and could not care less about us inching our way closer and closer while our camera was shooting away. In the Edmonton area we are still fortunate to have a thriving population of Red Squirrels, they are just as easily spotted in the local park or forest as in our neighbourhood backyards. They can be bold and brazen and very opportunistic. I have lost count of the number of squirrels I have had to evict from our house over the years,… that’s evicting from inside the house. While they might be cute one day and a brazen pest the next we are fortunate in Edmonton that the Eastern Gray Squirrel has not been introduced here. It is an introduced species in various locations in eastern North America, including in Vancouver and Calgary. In these cities it has become the predominant squirrel, essentially essentially replacing the native squirrels.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.